Collaboration as Performance Practice

Kate Soper and Eric Wubbels have turned away from the hierarchical paradigm of classical music, where the composer works in isolation on a piece before handing the final product to one or more interchangeable performers, in favor of a holistic approach that allows for creativity and learning from both sides of the composer/performer relationship.

Written By

Josh Modney

There’s a moment in Kate Soper’s duo for soprano and violin, Cipher, that tends to stick in people’s minds. The soprano, delivering spoken text, moves toward the violinist and places a mute on the instrument, filtering the tone color. As the violinist continues to play, the soprano moves closer still and places several fingers on the strings, activating specific pitches along the fingerboard. With intricately choreographed movements, the two musicians play the instrument together, creating harmonies that would be otherwise inaccessible to a solo violinist. Simultaneously, the violinist begins to speak. The roles of voice and instrument, which up to this point have been vying for primacy, have become equal and intertwined.

The physicality of it all is striking. It brings the violin into sharp focus. The expressive and sonic capabilities of the instrument have been tested throughout the first half of the piece, and now, in a radical extension of instrumental technique, the violin sings in an entirely new way. It’s also personal, drawing attention to the relationship between two performers and embodying the spirit of openness essential to adventurous musicmaking.

By crossing over into the visual realm, that moment illuminates an intensely personal, non-hierarchical creative process that is embedded throughout the sonic fabric of Cipher, a process that is a galvanizing force behind the extraordinary invention and experimentation in the piece. As the musicians converge on the violin, it is apparent that open dialogue must have been integral to developing the mechanics of the playing technique, and that the process must have involved a great deal of time and trust.

I’d like to take the opportunity here on NewMusicBox to talk about the genesis of Cipher and another work that is based on this kind of open process—Eric Wubbels’s “the children of fire come looking for fire”—and the profound impact both of these works have had on my relationship to creativity as a classically trained violinist. Both of these artists have turned away from the hierarchical paradigm of classical music, where the composer works in isolation on a piece before handing the final product to one or more interchangeable performers, in favor of a holistic approach that allows for creativity and learning from both sides of the composer/performer relationship.

Kate originally wrote Cipher for the two of us over an extended period of workshop in 2011. We premiered it in December of that year, and then started to perform it extensively in 2012 after a significant revision. The workshop process started at the very first stages of material generation. These early sessions drew on Kate’s sketches, initial ideas about how to share roles and subvert the traditional hierarchy of soprano with accompaniment (in part, building on ideas from Kate’s soprano and flute duo with Erin Lesser, Only The Words Themselves Mean What They Say), our burgeoning interest in Just Intonation (JI), Renaissance choral tuning exercises, and more. Our workshops were about posing questions and musical puzzles and seeing what we could do with them. For instance, is there a precise JI alternate tuning of the violin that can yield both a complex, “colored” unison across all four strings as well as pure intervals? How palpable are psycho-acoustic difference tones between soprano and violin, and how precisely can they be controlled? Can the instrument be readjusted to standard tuning in the middle of a piece without a pause in the action? (Through a team effort, yes!) Can novel sonorities on the violin be conjured if both performers play the instrument simultaneously? Historically, there is a great deal of overlap between the performance practice of violin and voice (the violin’s vocal qualities are widely celebrated, as in Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise), however the extended techniques of each diverge from one another dramatically. The long workshop process of Cipher allowed us to discover an extended soundworld with fields of sameness and difference, enabling the material in Cipher to morph into myriad extremes and then realign in uncanny unison.

Kate Soper and Josh Modney performing on a violin with four-hands

Kate Soper and Josh Modney navigating a passage for “violin four-hands” (Photo by Spencer McCormick, courtesy New Music USA)

A key element in all of this musical experimentation is trust. Trust encourages adventurous musical choices while laying groundwork for the performance practice of the final work. Every great chamber musician knows the critical importance of trust. For a great performance to happen, the musicians must inhabit a higher plane, a communal version of Robert Pirsig’s “high country of the mind,” interdependent and tethered together in Alpine-style ascent. An open creative process rooted in long-term collaboration allows that bond of trust to be forged right from the beginning, reinforcing every step of the piece’s development from premiere to revision, reinterpretation, touring, memorization, and recording.

A high level of trust opened up the potential for Kate and me to develop the technique for “violin 4-hands,” which involves a sharing of the extremely personal space of the violin’s physical surface and immediate aura. That trust eventually led to the refinement of a performance practice that is as much an integral part of the piece as the notes on the page, and ultimately, I think, bridges a gap that has been artificially opened in our musical culture. The gap between the paradigm of contemporary music composition and performance, which allows for experimentation but too often stops dead after the premiere, and of classical music, which demands refinement and deep engagement with individual works but all too easily falls into entrenched ways of thinking, at the expense of novel and creative approaches.

In classical music practice, the extremely high standards of refinement allow virtuosity to coalesce into a conduit for the expression of the spirit. I think that an important reason many listeners prefer classical music over contemporary music is that a great deal of energy has been put in over a great deal of time such that classical performers are able to transcend the technical demands of the music and communicate with audiences from the “high country.” A desire to bridge the gap and bring this level of refinement and detail to the creative space of a contemporary work is one of the things that drove the process behind Eric Wubbels’s “the children of fire come looking for fire” for violin and prepared piano.

Eric wrote “the children of fire…” for the two of us over the course of several months in early 2012. We met weekly, experimenting with sounds and, as the material began to solidify, learned the piece in chunks, building it up gradually from week to week. It was extremely rewarding to learn the piece in small sections in this super detailed and developmental way. By the time the week of the premiere arrived, each section of the piece felt innately familiar.

A recurring feature in Eric’s music is the idea of “translation”—that is, translating a sound that is idiomatic to one instrument into the language of another instrument, and then fusing the two sounds together. Blending the timbres of the modern violin and the modern piano is a particularly challenging task. Much of the famous repertoire for violin and piano duo was written for very different instruments – softer and warmer, built for intimate spaces, the characters of different keys brought to life by the piano’s meantone tuning, a system to which the violinist can easily adapt.

The situation these days is much different. The equipment of violins and pianos has been adapted for projection over an orchestra, such that it is difficult for the percussive attack of the piano and the tenacious sustain of the violin to blend. And the tuning system of equal temperament is a challenging fit for the violin. (For an informative and entertaining read on this, check out How Equal Temperament Ruined Harmony: And Why You Should Care, by Ross W. Duffin.)

All of this is to say that the timbre of the instruments (i.e., the instrumental technology) that forms the basis of a piece matters. A lot. The fresh ways that Eric has written for the peculiarities of the modern violin and the modern piano are a big part of what makes “the children of fire…” such a special and extraordinary piece. In “the children of fire…”, there are many instances where Eric uses the idea of translation to bring the instruments together. The piece begins with a sustained noise wall produced by overdriving the top string of the violin. Far from a generic scratch tone, it is a sound so complex and layered that it gives a sense of “everythingness,” a singularity from which the material for the rest of the piece is generated. This functions both metaphorically in the structure of the piece and as a practical generator of material – Eric made a spectral analysis of the sound and used that to find chords on the piano that would blend seamlessly.

Another example of translation sources a sound so idiomatic to the violin that it has become cliché: descending left hand pizzicato a la Paganini. It’s a sound associated with a certain brand of corny violinistic showmanship that Eric beautifully repurposes by combining it with a unison pizzicato gesture inside the piano (an evolution of the “pizz fail” section of Eric’s earlier work for Wet Ink, katachi).

Eric Wubbels: katachi – “pizz fail” section (as performed by Wet Ink Ensemble on Relay, Carrier Records)

There is a passage at the heart of “the children of fire…” that is effectively a double translation, reconciling the violin’s inability to play sustained chords with the piano’s inability to play in Just Intonation. It employs difference tones, which I learned how to precisely control on the violin through the process of collaboration with Eric. Difference tones are a psycho-acoustic phenomenon. When we hear two or more pitches simultaneously, our brains fill in the fundamental of those pitches. When the pitches are tuned in a manner that corresponds exactly to ratios of the harmonic series, we perceive the fundamental strongly. If you play a series of intervals formed from different strata of the harmonic series, a ghostly psycho-acoustic “bassline” emerges. In “the children of fire…”, Eric realizes this virtual bassline on the piano. It is a passage of striking beauty that solves the problem of violin/piano blend without using any extended techniques. The violin reinforces the upper partials inherent to the piano pitches, while the piano undergirds the fundamental that is psycho-acoustically implied by the violin dyads. The instruments blend perfectly, a meta-instrument, and akin to the far ranging terrain of Cipher, the possibility is opened up for the players to shape sounds that are starkly differentiated and then return to a place of absolute unity.

Eric Wubbels: the children of fire come looking for fire [excerpt] (performed by Josh Modney and Eric Wubbels on Engage, New Focus Recordings)

Making music this way, from the ground up, is incredibly rewarding and empowering, especially from the perspective of the relative confines of classical performance training. Being a participant and partner from the early stages of the development of a work, with generous collaborators who are willing to share their creative agency, has been liberating for me and has fundamentally changed my relationship to music. It has allowed me to connect the dots and see the potential for my own mobility along a continuum that ranges from interpretation, through collaboration and creative partnership, to being the primary creator myself as an improviser/composer. And, in the case of these duos by Kate and Eric, we have found a path that has no end date, and grows richer with each performance.

Aside from the great musical and spiritual rewards of such a process, it is also—perhaps counterintuitively—an incredibly efficient way to bring a new piece from the early stages of composition to the ultra-refined performance standard that is expected of classical music. Again, it has to do with an innate familiarity with each timbre and gesture (built on the process of elimination that happens when honing a sound in workshop, habitualizing your brain to the details of production, “not this, or this, but THIS”), and with the trust that is forged between collaborators which can then be brought onto the concert stage. Classical music performance, while fraught with its own challenges, benefits from pre-established practices cultivated over centuries and the framework of the common practice period. As new music performers, we must create our own performance practice before we may hope to transcend technical execution and strive toward that high country where the real, sustained ecstatic communication between performers and listeners can take place.